PNW SAE Baja revved up for summertime competitions

June 2, 2022



Purdue University Northwest’s (PNW) Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Baja student organization is putting a year’s worth of work to the test during its summertime competition season.

PNW Baja Motorsports will compete in early June at the SAE Baja Rochester invitational in New York. The student organization recently competed in May at the Tennessee Tech invitational in Cookeville, Tennessee. Team members try to place high by testing their off-road car’s endurance through several engineering trials.

The team also must present its vehicle in design and business presentations to judges. For the first time ever in PNW’s history participating in the competition, the team placed among the top 15 in the business presentation portion in Tennessee. This qualifies it for the national competition in September in Tucson, Arizona. PNW is one of around 190 other colleges and universities that contend during the competition season, said Rick Rickerson, laboratory administrator in PNW’s College of Technology.

PNW’s off-road vehicle competes in several dynamic events, including Acceleration, Maneuverability, Sled Pull, and Suspension. Each event is assembled differently to test a vehicle’s durability through obstacle-filled courses and drives. An added challenge this year is the requirement for the vehicle to be four-wheel drive.

“A lot of blood, sweat, and tears have gone into the car,” says Morgan Ceh, first-year Mechanical Engineering major. “Taking a step back to appreciate what we’ve done is cool. The whole thing is a learning process.”

PNW Baja Motorsports, which has 17 students this academic year, divided into groups to engineer, assemble, and fabricate the vehicle’s suspension, drive train, steering, brakes, and main systems.

“It’s a really good experience to learn just all-around technical skills, but also a good opportunity to learn life skills and social skills,” says Ethan Mikhaio-Keehn, first-year Mechanical Engineering major. “We’re definitely family. It’s the whole team coming together as one body for one car. Everyone is responsible for their parts, but also responsible for the car.”

PNW Baja SAE constructs a new vehicle almost every academic year because each vehicle is permitted to run in at most three competitions. This academic year, the team inherited a model which had only competed once before the COVID-19 pandemic began. The vehicle’s last available qualification will be used at the Rochester invite.

Driven by passion

Rickerson says the group has some of the hardest workers and best minds on campus, as exhibited by the long hours team members dedicate to the project, even outside of the fall and spring semesters. Rickerson says students burn the candle at both ends by coming into their Anderson Building workspace early in the morning or staying late at night to finish their tasks. He estimates many put in 20 or more hours of work per week.

However, school comes first, says Rickerson. It’s not uncommon for students to occasionally use the workspace for studying and helping each other with coursework.

“It really tests their longevity,” said Rickerson. “Like the student-athletes at the other end of campus, these students compete physically and mentally, but in an academic-based competition. I’ll put these students up against anyone else on campus. They have no quit. It’s the best club, without a doubt.

“Team members need to have ‘it’ — that curiosity and the understanding of what it takes to make something better. I can’t teach that — they’ve got to have ‘it.’”

The students are also dedicated advocates and fundraisers for the club. Students are responsible for applying for grants, appealing to sponsors, and conducting other fundraising activities to afford supplies, register for competitions, and travel and stay overnight at those destinations. Rickerson says the average outlay per year is around $60,000.

The long hours and multi-day competitions prove incredibly valuable because the experience better qualifies students for internships and jobs, says Rickerson.

“The end result is an ultimate resume-builder. We have companies that come to us and say if the students haven’t been in SAE Baja or SAE Formula, they may pass them over, because their project management skills and ability to meet deadlines are second to none. My sophomore team members are doing activities now that they wouldn’t see until their senior projects.”